Confessions of an Internet Stalker

What can strangers find out about you on the Internet? More than you think.

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Still, I now had a first and last name to search by. I Googled her full name and her profession. Bingo: Up popped a page on a professional services directory that was clearly her, and also listed a phone number whose final two digits matched the ones in her Airbnb profile. Now I could roam around her Facebook posts with confidence, hoovering up information -- like the fact that she recently got engaged, the name of her fiance, and where he just got a job. And, of course, I could call her, if I wanted.

But I wasn't done. Another Google search for her full name and city brought me to PeekYou, which confirmed her name with a middle initial, gave me her age, got a little more specific about her city, gave me some of her work history, and provided a link to her MySpace account (also not private -- lots more party pix). PeekYou in turn contained a link to Spokeo, which offered up the street Zooey lived on and its general location on a map, as well as the value of her home and her astrological sign, plus lots more info (phone, email, family members, age, political persuasions, social network connections, etc) if I was willing to pony up $3 to $5 a month for access to their public records search services. I declined.

By now I was starting to creep myself out. In 30 minutes or so I had gathered enough information to make this poor woman's life a living hell, if I wanted to. If I were a potential employer researching Zooey, I'd see red flags that would make me wary. If I were a criminal, I'd see copious opportunities to exploit this person (like by pretending to be an old friend who's overseas and in desperate need of cash). If I were a stalker -- at least, a real stalker -- I could have harassed her by phone and camped outside her house or place of work. And all I did to get there was a few targeted Google searches.

Think this can't happen to you? Think again, bunky. Latanya Sweeney, director of Harvard's Data Privacy Lab, has demonstrated you can identify almost any person on the planet using just three pieces of "anonymized" data:

Fully 87 percent of the United States population is uniquely identified by date of birth, five-digit zip code, and gender, she says: “So if I know only those three things about you, I can identify you by name 87 percent of the time. Pretty cool.”

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